The word for "Dressage" in Spanish is "Doma" and it essentially just means "training". And this is more or less the Spanish horseperson's mindset - the fundamental dressage movements are just part of the basic training that nearly all horses and riders recieve. As a kid the only "aids" I ever learned were to squeeze, kick and kick harder and dressage was something only extremely fancy people did with their impossibly fancy horses. I think the fact I'm from a middle class non-horsey family in the South had a lot to do with this perspective and I know a lot has changed in the US horse world in the last 15 or 20 years, but I still get the feeling that dressage over there is viewed as an "advanced" discipline by a lot of people, whereas here it's pretty common to see 8 year olds leg yielding across the ring with their little lesson ponies.
As far as I understand it, the goal in dressage is not to win contests or see who has the fanciest horse but to improve your horse's movements and build fitness, efficiency and flexibility, kind of like equine pilates. So when the instructor who comes to our barn to give the monthly dressage clinic asked me if I wanted to do the next one with Starbuck I leaped at the chance.
The day of the clinic Starbuck was pretty spooky so I longed her for a fair amount of time before it started using lots of changes of direction and rhythm to get her focussed on me instead of the invisible monsters lurking right outside the arena. I actually doubted whether to ride her in the clinic or not but I figured it was worth a try and anyway the worst that could happen is I could fall off again (been there, done that!).
The focus for this month's course was on transitions, when the clinic started we gathered round the instructor Daniela and she explained some visual images inspired by Sally Swift's Centered Riding - for downward transitions we should grow both upwards and downwards at the same time and visualize an anchor being dropped from our center of gravity down to the ground, breathing as if a tube linked our nose and mouth all the way down to our toes, sending the air through our entire body. For upward transitions we should imagine energy coming out of our belly shooting forward and upward diagonally in order to energise our horses. Then we tacked up and split into groups for the ridden segment. I only had one other rider in my group - a teenage girl who's been taking lessons for about a year now and was riding one of the old steady lesson geldings, but since Starbuck was a little spooky that morning I warmed her up under saddle for a good 30 minutes while another group was riding.
When the group before us finished, Daniela started us on an excercise - walking around the ring and stopping completely at every letter. Starbuck did pretty well except when we got to the scary side of the arena, where she couldn't stop moving her feet. But all in all not bad. Then each of us claimed a 20 meter circle to practice stop - walk - trot - walk - stop transitions, always at the same point on the circle. I thought we were doing OK but Daniela pointed out that Starbuck wasn't bending correctly into the circle and asked for more flexion at the poll. This was a lot harder since she kept on falling in and my inside leg just wasn't doing the trick, I was especially surprised since she kept on the circle way better at a trot than at a walk. But Daniela said that the important part was the posture and that tracing a perfect circle was secondary. It's funny how every instructor you go to says something which is the exact antithesis of what some other instructor has drilled into you.
When I was finally able to keep Starbuck on a mostly round circle with the correct flexion for a full lap we stopped and let her take a little break while Dani gave me some pointers - keep the hands absolutely still (I had been fiddling with the reins) with the inside rein slightly elevated and if I see that my inside leg isn't strong enough to keep her on the circle, shift my weight slightly to the outside. While we were talking Starbuck let her head down and Dani commented on how that was a signal that she was working well - relaxing and opening her topline "like an umbrella".
Anyhow we changed reins and repeated the exercise and it was just as difficult the second time around, but at least I was able to give her the correct aids instead of just "trying different things" as my great grandmother would say. In the end though we finally were able to understand each other and she did one circle almost perfectly, without leaning on the bit at all. Daniela pronounced it a job well done and I promptly hopped off to reward her for her good work. Daniela praised me for improving my seat and arm position since the last clinic and said that Starbuck has a good attitude and is using herself well for her age and stage of training.
So all in all a great experience and we have some terrific new exercises to add to our repertoire which work on strengthening her topline without putting undue stress on those baby joints of hers!